The interpretations were wide, and the research fascinating. People had turned up the most remarkable images to consider, and were full of views, thoughts and ideas about them.
Two of the class focused on ecorche figures; drawings or models of flayed bodies, showing the muscles and bones below the skin. These figures were often drawn or modelled in classical, heroic poses, as if alive, sometimes negligently trailing their skin over one shoulder like a cloak. They are both beautiful and repulsive, fascinating and horrible. We discussed the boundaries between art and science, which seem very elastic at this point.
One student presented an ecorche drawing of the muscles at the back of the neck, the skin neatly dissected away to show the fan of muscles, the nerves and bones at the base of the skull. The image had a weird, slightly alien look. The vulnerability of the pose was enhanced by our knowledge that the neck, the literal conduit between mind and body, was the traditional site for an execution, be it by hanging or beheading.
Another astonished us with stories about a woman who made ecorche wax figures in 14th century Italy, and attended dissection classes to do so, with the blessing and encouragement of the Pope. So much for our assumptions that women were excluded from medicine, and dissection a shameful craft carried out in secret, until the 19th or 20th century.
The 19th century anatomist was brought creepily to life in a series of three paintings or etchings, each showing a beautiful, young, naked woman laid out before the soberly clothed, respectable man charged with opening her up. These memento mori paintings now carry an undeniable sexual charge that made us all uncomfortable, although doubtless they would not have been seen in that way 150 years ago.
Finally came what was for me the highlight of the evening. One student had followed her interest in the prosthetic limbs in the Wellcome Collection, to look at the artificial hands made for soldiers maimed in the First World War. These beautifully-carved wooden hands, with carefully etched lifelines and nails, were intended as ‘dress hands’, while more practical hooks and clamps were also produced for working men.
Our lucky student had struck gold in her research. Looking into a booklet produced by a British manufacturer of false limbs, she’d found a cache of letters tucked into the front flap, from former servicemen using the limbs. These handwritten letters thanked the manufacturers for their hands, explained how they used them – often they’d wear a ‘dress hand’ to and from work, swapping it for a more useful tool when they arrived – and expressing their gratitude. Apparently the archivist went pale when she showed him the hitherto undiscovered letters. What an exciting find, and how wonderful to discover new primary sources in a ‘taster’ course of history. The course’s subtitle – Exploring the Wellcome Collection – certainly lived up to its billing.
I also presented my researches, into 19th century systems for breast enlargement. More of that soon.